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History of Lea County

Not so long ago, thousands of buffalo roamed the vast grassy plains of this southwestern corner of New Mexico, the land we call Llano Estacada Staked Plains. Although many travelers passed through Lea County during the years when Europeans were exploring the New World, these brave souls were no match for the Native Americans who claimed the area as their own. From the Spanish conquerors of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mexican rulers of the 18th century, to the Buffalo Soldiers of the post-Civil War era, to the fearless cowboys of the 19th century, all were daunted by the endless horizons of the landscape and by the skills and brilliant tactics of the native people who resisted the onslaught of these invaders. Fortunately, though, remnants of these former civilizations still remain in Lea County’s museums, folklore and anthropological digs. Much of the land is still as wild and untamed as it was when the nomadic Comanche and Apaches called it home. Arrowheads and pottery shards still lie undisturbed just below the surface of the ground, a paradise for amateur archaeologists. In fact, North America’s most ancient pre-historic human probably hunted bison and mammoth in and around Lea County at least 15,000 years ago. Both the Clovis Man and the Folsom Man left their spear points here.

Lea County’s present wealth, though, is more dependent on events that took place long before the humans made an appearance. About 250 million years ago, the Llano Estacado was submerged underwater. As this shallow, inland sea slowly evaporated, the dying sea left behind layer after layer of dead marine life, resulting in huge oil and natural gas reserves that have made Lea County one of the richest centers of natural resources in the world. Later geological changes would add an even more important resource to the Llano Estacado: the Ogallala aquifer, a huge, underground lake of cold, pure, filtered pristine water. Although the Native Americans cleverly hid this secret source of water for many years, eventually the stubborn determination of the early pioneers led to the discovery this essential source of life.

By the 1880s, Lea County had become a haven for big cattle ranchers who settled near the scattered watering holes. They were quickly followed, however, by the even more tenacious homesteaders, who learned that plentiful water existed just a few feet below ground; hence, ubiquitous windmills now dot the landscape. Many ranchers in Lea County still depend on these windmills to water their herds.

While the never-ending procession of settlers brought stability and permanent encampments to the Llano Estacado, the Southwest remained a place of fiercely independent and self-sufficient people. In fact, New Mexico was not even admitted to statehood until 1912, making it the 47th state to join the Union and one of the last to relinquish its association with the wilderness frontier.

Even after statehood, Lea County resisted urbanization and remains a retreat for those who crave a little elbow room and prefer the peaceful, wide open spaces reminiscent of bygone days to the smog, noise and crime of more populated areas. Today, Lea County reflects its pioneer spirit. While traditional occupations still thrive, such as farming, ranching and drilling, opportunities abound for the entrepreneur looking for a new beginning, ideal weather, friendly neighbors and the affordable cost of living that make this area a great place to live, play and work.

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